US Coins

Changing U.S. coin designs: From the Memory Bank

Diane Wolf used her position on the federal Commission of Fine Arts as an advocate for new designs on U.S. circulating coins.

Coin World file photo.

As the numismatic community began to explore ways to attract more collectors and participants to the rare coin marketplace in the mid-1980s, a surprising ally and advocate emerged.

Diane Wolf was unknown to the numismatic community before President Reagan appointed her to the federal Commission of Fine Arts in 1985. The appointment was a reward for her work on Reagan’s re-election campaign staff and for her consulting role in a number of successful Republican congressional elections.

Established in 1912, the CFA’s role was to advise various government agencies on proposed buildings, landscaping, statues, fountains and monuments within the District of Columbia, as well as designs for coins, medals and insignias. At the time, the CFA was the only entity that reviewed and recommended coin and medal designs.

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Given her lifelong interest in art, Wolf’s presidential appointment to the uncompensated federal panel seemed to be a good fit. 

Almost immediately after joining the CFA she realized that most members were architects and had little interest in coins and medals. A quick study, she sought to learn everything she could about coins and medals and reached out to the numismatic community for help.

She called me and introduced herself. She had begun reading Coin World and commented on several editorials I had written, especially one I had written calling for new designs on the nation’s circulating coins. 

During our conversation, she asked for my suggestions for reading and research. Topping my recommendations was Cornelius Vermeule’s Numismatic Art in America. I also sent her a copy of our newly published fourth edition of Coin World Almanac, which contained a chapter titled “First the Book,” that listed and gave brief descriptions of books pertaining to U.S. coins as well as those about ancient and foreign coins.

About six weeks after her first phone call, Wolf called with another question. I was amazed because it was obvious that since our first conversation she had read — indeed studied — not only Vermeule’s book, but many of the standard references cited in the almanac.

Armed with knowledge, she began challenging the status quo. 

At the time, Mint officials were opposed to any changes to designs on circulating coins. And some senior Treasury officials, who appeared sympathetic to the cause, were not about to rock the boat or risk their careers on an issue like coinage redesign. 

So Wolf set her sights on Congress and legislation to force the Mint into action.

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